Dilettante: Portland Museum of Art celebrates Winslow Homer

Posted Wednesday, September 19, 2012 in Culture

Dilettante: Portland Museum of Art celebrates Winslow Homer

Winslow Homer with "The Gulf Stream" in his studio at Prouts Neck, circa 1900.

by Jan Brennan

SCARBOROUGH — The Portland Museum of Art has a fabulous new gem. It cost well over $10 million, and took six years of cutting and polishing before the museum felt it was ready to put on display.

Now it is ready to be seen, and it's a stunner: It's the Winslow Homer Studio on Prouts Neck in Scarborough.

At a ribbon-cutting ceremony there Sept. 17, PMA Director Mark Bessire and representatives of restoration architects Mills Whitaker Architects of Arlington, Mass., and North Bridgton, Maine, and contractors Marc Truant & Associates of Cambridge, Mass., were all beaming like proud papas. And rightfully so; their baby took a lot of labor, but the end result is a historically accurate "shrine to Maine creativity," as Bessire said, set in an oceanfront landscape of breathtaking beauty.

Homer, a native Bostonian, moved to Prouts Neck in 1883, when he was in his late 40s and his reputation was well established. He had discovered Prouts in 1875, when he visited his brother Arthur, who was honeymooning at a hotel there. In 1883 their eldest brother, Charles, bought up most of the land on the Neck, with the idea of creating a family compound and selling off other lots as a summer resort.
Homer, a lifelong bachelor, claimed the carriage house on Charles' property for himself. He had it moved farther away from his brother's house, and hired noted Portland architect John Calvin Stevens to make it habitable. Stevens put on a second-story porch, wrapped around two sides of the building, and in 1890 he added a new, large, ground-floor room in which Homer could work on large canvases.

Homer lived there in the warm-weather months (there was no insulation, and only a fireplace for heating and cooking) for the rest of his life. He took walks along the cliffs, observed the waves and the sky, and painted his iconic seascapes in the studio. "The life I have chosen gives me hours of enjoyment ..." the famous recluse once wrote to Charles. "The sun will not rise, or set, without my notice and thanks."

Many of his later works show waves crashing against the rocks just 75 feet from his house. Apparently, he was following the advice he once gave to an art student: "Leave rocks for your old age — they're easy." Homer died in his studio at age 74, in 1910.

"High Cliff, Coast of Maine" (1894)

The old carriage house was passed on to other relatives, who over the years used it as a summer house and rental property. Many changes were made, including the addition of a kitchen in the 1930s. In 2006 Charles Homer Willauer, Homer’s great-grand-nephew, sold the building to the Portland Museum of Art, which decided to restore the structure to the way it looked during Homer's lifetime.

That, of course, was no easy task.